Activities and tips for enhancing a child’s attention
Children with autism can have difficulties in focussing their attention on the people or activities around them. It might be, for instance, that they display limited interest in engaging with members of the family and other people, or only interact with others in order to have their needs met. They might also have difficulty in directing their attention to topics or activities that are outside of their particular interests.
This can also mean that it is difficult for children on the spectrum to maintain a conversation or respond to non-verbal cues and body language. In addition, children with autism may find it challenging to make and maintain eye contact with others.
Some children can hyper-focus and become distracted by things that others barely notice, while others may have an additional diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), perhaps leading to their exhibiting behaviours of concern.
Autism can also mean that children on the spectrum have difficulty in developing the functional skills required for daily living activities, as they find it challenging to focus their attention sufficiently well to learn the different steps required. In the case of older children, these difficulties can also lead to their feeling anxious or isolated if they think that they are developing at a different rate to their peers.
Helping children with autism to enhance their attention
There are a range of activities and games that you can engage in with your child to help them to enhance their attention.
A helpful way of doing this is to develop a child’s play skills through games and activities. Play skills are useful because they usually require engagement and attention in order to participate, while at the same time developing conversational skills and the ability to observe and respond to body language.
Role play and modelling are further useful ways of enhancing a child’s attention, as in these sorts of activities they are required to observe and respond to what is being modelled. Social narratives, too, can be useful in this context, particularly when they require a variety of problem solving skills.
Playing with other children can also be of benefit in helping to increase attention in children on the spectrum. Parallel play activities (when your child engages in an activity alongside others doing either different or similar activities) are useful, as you can use this as an opportunity to draw your child’s attention to the games and actions of others, e.g., “Look at what Jane is doing,” etc. Likewise, cooperative or social play activities can also be a useful tool, as participation in group activities can encourage a range of skills that require children’s attention, such as taking turns and observing what others are doing.
Social skills groups can also be a helpful way of helping children to enhance their attention. These groups can be focussed on specific interests (such as Lego) or skills development, and are a good way for children to practise directing and focussing their attention on a specific activity, along with their social interaction skills.
Along similar lines, visual supports may also be useful. These can take a variety of forms and can be used as prompts to start a conversation or learn a new skill. They are also helpful in breaking down activities into steps that can be learnt one by one, and so are a useful tool for helping children on the spectrum to focus their attention on specific or individual actions.
Useful tips for increase children’s attention
It can be helpful in increasing a child’s attention if you participate alongside them in activities or games that they have chosen. For instance, of there is a toy or a game that they particularly enjoy playing with, get involved in the game too. You can get down on the floor and push a toy car, make train or animal noises, or help put clothes on a doll.
As part of these activities, it can also be helpful if you begin to imitate your child’s actions, facial expressions and gestures. If they enjoy this, it may encourage them to do a different action or expression, so that you will continue to copy them. In time, you might be able to initiate an action which they will then imitate, e.g., if you pat your head, they copy you and pat their head too.
During your play, it is also helpful if you incorporate a combination of verbal and physical directions. You might say, “Look at the bus,” when you pick it up, for instance, or “Where is the horse?” as you point towards it. It can also be of benefit if you name toys when you play with them, e.g., “Your turn with the teddy bear,” rather than just, “Your turn.”
While you are both enjoying these types of activities, it will further help if you offer regular praise and encouragement, highlighting specific positive behaviours, e.g., “Well done for passing me the ball.”
Activities that can help to increase children’s attention
Many children with autism are better able to focus their attention on a game or activity if it has a clear end result, rather than those that are more open ended and don’t come to a natural close. This may because they know what to expect and so are able to give the task their attention in the knowledge that there will be something to see, or that there will be a feeling of accomplishment, at its conclusion.
For instance, it can be helpful if you choose activities such as puzzles, jigsaws or mazes, which you and your child are able to complete and then see an end product. You might like to engage in craft activities, where you make something that you can wear afterwards, or put up on the wall. If you sing songs or nursery rhymes together, it can be helpful to choose those where the ending is very clear, perhaps accompanied by an action.
This approach can be helpful because children generally enjoy the feeling that comes with completing a task, as well as being able to see something they have made, and so are encouraged to give it their attention. Depending on the nature of the activity, you may also be enhancing your child’s ability to follow instructions and their social interaction skills at the same time.
The length of time you can devote to completing these sort of close-ended activities will likely depend on your child’s development, but as you observe any increases in their attention, you might consider extending the complexity of the task and/or the time required.